TerryTheVoice says “William Onyeabor inspired me greatly as a god father and as a musician” – Olisa Eloka
Ugochukwu Terrence Odenigbo, whose stage name is TerryTheVoice grew up on the same street, where ‘Fantastic Man’ William Onyeabor lived in Enugu.
As a child, people didn’t know how famous Mr Onyeabor was, TerryTheVoice says. But, then, his inspiration was fuelled when he found out that the songs he grew up hearing, from every speaker on the streets or on radio stations, were Mr Onyeabor’s spiritual offerings.
Even his song, “Rewind”, is laced with the kind of beat Mr. Onyeabor produced.
For those who don’t know, William Onyeabor was a Nigerian funk musician and businessman. His music was widely heard in Nigeria in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but he remained an enigmatic figure, private and reclusive.
Gradually, these songs became a part of his life and he could feel how they influenced his style of music. This has led to his meteoric rise in the music industry, as he performed at the 2020 Big Brother Naija.
“My best performance so far was the one at the Big Brother House,” TerrytheVoice said. “My fear was that someone would go get a drink and get bored. So I made sure I had everyone staring at me till the end of the show.”
It was the second Saturday night of December, and we were having an interview over the phone. My earlier request for a physical meeting had been turned down.
Terry had explained, his voice soothingly mellow and apologetic, that his gruelling schedule, laced with music rehearsals, ongoing shoot for a music video, and other meetings in preparation to the release of his seven-track debut studio album, The Voice, set for a January 2021 release on all platforms had drained almost all of his time.
But he gladly gave up an hour of his break time to have a conversation with me on his personal life, art and why the international stage is his for the taking.
Born on March 4th 1995, Ugochukwu Terrence Odenigbo emerged from a bloodline of performance artistes. He told Pulse that his “grandmother was the head dancer of a musical troupe” before the Nigerian civil war and his cousin, “Rex Papi, is also an artiste.”
Odenigbo and his siblings lived in Enugu town, southeastern Nigerian, where he spent a good part of his childhood singing in the catholic choir his mother “forced” him to join. His mother, Nnenna Christine Odenigbo, was a high school teacher his father of blessed memory, Chukwuemeka Michael Odenigbo.
His family is “staunchly catholic” and Nnenna wanted her five children to participate actively in religious organizations. She had extended a list to them of prospective societies to be affiliated with — you either belong to the Legion of Mary, Blockrosary, or the choir, amongst others; Odenigbo opted for the choir, a course he told me “wasn’t fun for me then. I could have been doing some other things, like playing video games, but my mom was strict.”
Odenigbo remembers his family moving briefly to other parts of the country like Kano and Benin (thanks to his father’s occasional work transfers). Those relocations exposed the young and impressionable Odenigbo to the highly diverse and multifaceted nature of his society.
Odenigbo shared that as a child he often got lost in daydreams in which he would be talking to himself, rehearsing monologues, refining his voice-over acts, and on the occasions, his mother chanced upon him, she got concerned. “She’d ask “Are you ok? I had to reassure her.” When he wasn’t talking to imaginary elements, he would be playing basketball and football, sports that left him with a couple of injuries. “I had injuries playing football. I had that thing where you’d want to kick the ball and scratch your toe on concrete.”
When he got admitted to study Psychology, Odenigbo realized how peculiar and distinctive his baritone voice was. This self-awareness spurred him into enlisting as a voice-over artist at the university’s radio station, a move that earned him the moniker “TerrytheVoice” which stuck to this day.
“I started doing voice-overs, got posted to the production team” where he began working with the producer, mixing jingles, then music, choruses, and, not letting the opportunity slide by. I started making just my songs as well.”
On graduation, Odenigbo was posted to Gombe state for his National Youth Service Corps program, but he quickly redeployed to Abuja “for peace of mind”. The Boko Haram insurgency had reduced the North east to a security risk. But even in the capital of the country, he never stopped dreaming of music.
“I don’t make music that only I would listen to. I want my music to be enjoyed by everyone–little kids, old people, the older generation. I bring that psychology to music-making.”
Because of the global pandemic, amongst other measures taken by the Federal government to curb the escalating health crisis, curfews were imposed nationwide, public events and concerts in Nigeria were prohibited, and artistes largely banked on e-performances. Then the Big Brother Naija Reality Show Season Five: Lockdown premiered on 19 July 2020 on Africa Magic and live fed on DStv channel 198 and GOtv channel 29. Its commencement let loose a flood of drama which gripped the attention of the nation and West Africa.
Odenigbo was in isolation in the United States when his manager and the founder of La Cave Musik, Onyeka Nwelue, informed him that he had been billed to perform as a guest artiste on one of the customary weekend parties hosted in the Big Brother house. It was pleasantly surprising news.
“He (Nwelue) made a way and because of the strings he pulled, I was able to get back into the country. He actually pitched my songs to the organizers of the show and they liked it. And they gave me the opportunity. So, big shoutout to Onyeka Nwelue and big shoutout to Big Brother.”
Odenigbo had performed one of his most recent hits, International, at the Big Brother Naija weekend party, and like he desired, no one went for a drink or got bored. He gripped them by the throat and didn’t let go until he dropped the mic. It was a necessary triumph. It was his first performance of the year. But he has history with the reality show. He is “the voice behind the Instant Pickup and Instant Apartment commercials which aired on Big Brother Naija: Double Wahala and The Headies (2018).”
Odenigbo was a teen when he met Onyeka Nwelue, an acclaimed author, professor, show host and filmmaker, with scores of controversies to his name, through his older brother, Obinna, a writer. It was initially a friendly interaction, and their professional relationship didn’t take off until two years ago, when Odenigbo decided to go into music full blown.
Odenigbo explained that prior to his decision to make a career out of music, he had been doing hooks and choruses for his friends. “They loved the kind of melodious sounds I was coming up with. At some point, I decided I have to make mine. I said to my producer, “I have to make my own tracks.”’ He got into the studio and got “a little bit selfish.”
Before admitting that Odenigbo could be anxious about the future, Nwelue assured me that his client is going to be “very huge. He is focused and knows what he wants.”
Odenigbo’s mother was cynical about her son’s decision to be a musical artiste. She thought Odenigbo was going to work in a corporate organization with his 2:1 honours degree, but she threw in her support when his art started getting rewarded and recognized.
“She said I didn’t know I had that voice,” he remembers, “and I said, “Mommy, remember that time when I was talking to myself, when I was crazy? Well, I’m not crazy.”’ He hopes that, like his mother, more people would start buying into the magic that his craft promises. “There have been obstacles here and there, but God is the greatest. I’m going to get to the top, for sure.”
“Let’s talk about International,” I said. “Do you make use of songwriters or do you write your own songs?”
“I write my own songs, but right now, I want to work with a couple of songwriters,” he told me.
Odenigbo was in the studio with his producer, Jesse, and TK-Swag, shortly after they finished working on a song, Mary Poppins, when he stumbled upon a beat that appealed to him. Soon he found himself humming to it, “I’m international, international, baby!” repeatedly stumbling out of his mouth. And this isn’t just an accidental prayer; it’s a prophecy rooted in a resolve to be more than a national sensation. Odenigbo’s big dream is to be as international as he proclaims. “I told my team we have to do this. I took care of the hook immediately.” He had found the premise and title of a new song, one that has proven to be his biggest hit so far. The production went magically smooth. “International took about three hours to be mixed and mastered.”
He told me that at that point in his life he was feeling “international, feeling futuristic.”
He said, “Music is like another realm, kind of spiritual. I do not make music any day I like. I make music as the spirit leads. Whenever I am in the studio with my producer, we wow ourselves. It’s really exciting. You find out things about yourself. You reach heights you never believed you could actually attain. It’s beautiful. Most of my songs are based on my life, the stories people tell me.”
Odenigbo insists that good music comes from the state of mind of the artiste. At some point in his life things weren’t working out as planned, and his belief in self rapidly eroded. “I couldn’t make music.” He shared his creative drought with a friend who told him to “snap out of it.”
That was the beginning of his comeback.
“Why do you call your kind of music Amazin’ Music,” I said.
“I’m different, like every other individual. I don’t stick to a particular genre of music. It’s mixed up; you can get Afrobeat from it, you can get Jazz, Afropop. What I make is Amazin’ Music, and it relates to every individual, it cuts across to every person. That’s why it’s Amazin’ Music.”
I suggested that perhaps his keenness towards making music that transcends every conceivable boundary could stem from his childhood experience of living in different states of the country, assimilating cultures other than that which he inherited. He neither affirmed nor disagreed; he only asked if I could grant him a couple of seconds in which he would move to another part of the house, where the network was a bit stable. I obliged.
Half a minute later, our conversation was back on the way, and I reiterated my opinion that the influence of his childhood was manifest in his art, and he agreed. “Yes, it’s true.”
His song, Foreign, written in Kingston, Jamaica, featuring Iyaf Gift, is a seamless infusion of reggae and dancehall. Aside from shooting the music video in Jamaica in February, Odenigbo ran into the Olympic legendary athlete, Usain Bolt, at the beach. “He was sitting by himself at the beach and I was surprised that no one was paying attention to him.” Odenigbo walked over and asked, “Can I get a picture?” Bolt replied, “Yeah, sure.” They engaged in a conversation, a moment the twenty five year old would always fondly remember. He also met Beenie Man, and confesses that “Jamaica is beautiful. A lot of cool people that want to live their life and have fun.”
He has done a couple of songs in patois. “I featured Jamaican artistes in my debut album coming out in early January next year and I have a new single with TK-Swag coming out this December. I already shot the video for that last Saturday.”
When he’s not making music, he’s listening to music. Or reading a book or crime investigations or documentaries. “I try to keep my mind as preoccupied as possible.”
The coast of Odenigbo’s dreams are ever widening. “I want the music to be heard. I want to tour around the whole place. I want to be here in the next forty, fifty, sixty years. I want to win awards. I want to win the Grammy. I want to take it all.”
That is a reminder of his collaboration with Grammy-nominee, Sizzla.
And perhaps the forthcoming The Voice album will signal1 the genesis of that conquest.
-Olisa Eloka is a screenwriter and an editor at the Question Marker magazine. His work has been published in Nigeria and the UK. He lives in Lagos.